Poet's Pick April 21
William Carlos Williams:
"The Widow's Lament in Springtime"

Selected by Floyd Skloot
National Poetry Month 2017

Letter from the Editors

Dear Readers,

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Thank you so much for your support! Enjoy today's special poem and commentary from 2009!

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Don Selby & Diane Boller

Floyd Skloot's Poetry Month Pick, April 21, 2017

"The Widow's Lament in Springtime"
by William Carlos Williams (1883–1963)

Sorrow is my own yard
where the new grass
flames as it has flamed
often before but not
with the cold fire
that closes round me this year.
Thirtyfive years
I lived with my husband.
The plumtree is white today
with masses of flowers.
Masses of flowers
load the cherry branches
and color some bushes
yellow and some red
but the grief in my heart
is stronger than they
for though they were my joy
formerly, today I notice them
and turn away forgetting.
Today my son told me
that in the meadows,
at the edge of the heavy woods
in the distance, he saw
trees of white flowers.
I feel that I would like
to go there
and fall into those flowers
and sink into the marsh near them.


* Floyd Skloot Comments:
In 1968, I was twenty-one years old and knew exactly what I liked in poetry. I liked traditional structure, orderly progress, and the visible signs of such things: rhyme, meter, formal balance, measured tones even when extreme emotions were being handled. I liked Frost, Hardy, Kinsella, Lowell, Ransom, Sexton, Snodgrass, Yeats. I was all right with Bishop and Roethke, who seemed daring to me. I knew I didn't like William Carlos Williams, having only read a few of the standard anthology pieces such as "The Red Wheelbarrow" or "This Is Just to Say." Then I read Williams' "The Widow's Lament in Springtime" and was blown away. 

I loved the way it sounded.  It used repetition ("flame" and "masses" and "flowers" and "today") to great, satisfying formal effect. While lines didn't rhyme where I expected them to—at the end of lines—there was rhyme and its various aural relatives everywhere ("grass" and "masses" and "branches," "closes round me" and "plumtree," "they" and "away").  I saw that all the trappings I thought I admired most were really just techniques for making language musical, for letting sound do its vivid work. 

I loved the way this poem made me feel, made me experience the sadness it was talking about by bringing me inside the speaker's soul. It felt authentic, and showed me that the greatest empathy was not achieved by remaining outside the subject and looking in, but by entering and experiencing, as an actor would, the emotions of another. 

The lines moved the way breath moved. Sentences expanded and contracted as they do when someone fights to control emotion, thus achieving the sort of tension I had believed possible only when formal strictures provided the boundaries against which feeling fought for release.  There were bursts of statement ("Thirtyfive years/I lived with my husband") counterpointed with charged description and narration, and I could sense the speaker struggle to manage her feelings as they kept threatening to erupt. All this in such simple, direct language.  It was an altogether other kind of elegance.

The more I read "The Widow's Lament in Springtime," the more I admired how Williams handled his materials. The speaker's blanched spirit; the emptiness she felt; her ghostly, haunted grief were stronger than the vivid colors all around her—the signs of rebirth—and so when the white flowers at the edge of the woods drew her most powerfully, when the absence of color felt like home to her, it seemed perfectly right to me. I felt it before I saw how Williams made me feel it.  The syntactical variety was in fact a drama being played out between the speaker's mind and heart, as emotion and thought tangled within her.

Great poems should make a reader reconsider all assumptions, and "The Widow's Lament in Springtime" did that for me. It opened me up, brought me to Pound who brought me to Eliot, whose music has never stopped moving me.  Williams, writing about his mother's sorrow, marked a huge turning point for me, widening the range of possibilities for me as a poet, the technical options, and teaching me that the sound of feeling was poetry's true scoring.

Floyd Skloot:
Floyd Skloot’s most recent collections of poetry include Approaching Winter (2015), The Snow's Music (2008), The End of Dreams (2006), all from LSU Press, and Close Reading (2004) from the British publisher Eyewear. In fall 2019, LSU Press plans to publish his ninth collection, Far West. Skloot's work has won three Pushcart Prizes and the PEN USA Literary Award.

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